Why Bats Aren’t Bad—They Are Vital

Cute bat in a person's house
Credit: James Pagé, CWF

What comes to mind when you think of bats? Often, panic and disgust follow interactions with or mentions of these little creatures. Spending their days in shadowy places and their nights fluttering around in nocturnal activity, it’s no wonder they are shrouded in mystery and battle misunderstanding. Stacked on top of that, they are up against a rapidly spreading disease and habitat loss. The future of bats matters because they play a silent, underappreciated, key role in our environment.

Bats are fascinating, endearing creatures. They are the only mammals (yes mammals, not birds) that can truly fly, and they are experts at it. Previously named flittermice (although they are not rodents either), they zip through the air with flair at an average of 16 kilometres per hour. Their prey is no match for their aerial prowess. Canada is home to 19 species of bats, and there isn’t a bloodsucker among them. Bats can consume their body weight in moths, beetles and mosquitoes every night. This translates to millions of dollars saved every year on pest control. More exciting to us outdoor folk: their work means fewer of those actual bloodsuckers eating us alive. As far as natural insect control goes, bats are extremely helpful.

Those flexible, leathery wings enable impressive, agile sometimes frightening flights, but they also use them to cuddle their babies, handle food and even swim!

Cute lil bat
Credit: James Pagé, CWF

Not only are bats superb aviators, but these acrobatic shadows also have great eyesight. “Blind as a bat” could not be a more inaccurate expression. Echolocation is an extra superpower they use to hone in on their tiny prey after dark.

Because their six-legged food source is only available during the warm months, some bats head south during our Canadian winters, while others hibernate in caves and sometimes heated buildings. This hibernation period is when a fungal disease, causing White-nose Syndrome (WNS), has been attacking the bare skin of the dangling creatures, triggering hydration, circulation, electrolyte balance and temperature regulation issues, plus some strange behaviours. Infected bats become active when they should be dormant, some even flying outside in the winter which burns up their winter fat reserves. Up to 99 per cent of a colony can die as a result, and the disease has killed over six million bats so far. It’s no wonder the disease is causing massive population declines across the country. Since its discovery over 10 years ago in eastern Canada, the disease has spread west through nine provinces and threatens some species with extinction.

Other perils besides WNS threaten bats. Even the most agile bat can’t avoid the swooping blades of wind turbines. Pesticides kill and contaminate their food source. Habitat loss by deforestation and evictions from their favorite places—houses and barns—reduces access to roosting sites.

Credit: Karen Vanderwolf

Having a family hang out is a big deal to bats and people can help by creating these spaces in the form of bat boxes (the same idea as putting up a bird house). Most species only give birth to one pup per year, and they need special roosting sites with specific humidities and temperatures to birth and raise them. Justifiably, they are picky when choosing a roost site. Until now we’ve been in the dark about exactly what it is that they prefer in the artificial roosts that people create.

To figure out what design factors turn a sub-standard bat box into premium bat real estate, the Canadian Wildlife Federation is collaborating with the Wildlife Conservation Society Canada, the University of Waterloo, post-doc Karen Vanderwolf and 1,400 citizen scientists in an initiative called the Canadian Bat Box Project. Research is ongoing, but so far they’ve come up with a list of things bats prefer in a home. We now know they love bat boxes installed on the side of heated buildings, hung at heights of nine feet or greater. The ideal dimensions of a bat box are 24 inches high (i.e. length), 15 inches wide (preferably even a bit taller and wider), with at least three chambers spaced one inch apart. These chambers create microclimates they can choose from for different times of day and temperatures.

Ideal home for a bat
Credit: CWF

Installing a bat box isn’t the only way you can help bats like the endangered Little Brown Bat, half of whose range is in Canada. If you see a bat, take a photo and report it using platforms like iNaturalist Canada. If bats choose to roost in your building, don’t panic! If you manage the colony properly, bats won’t make you sick and they won’t ruin your home. Living peacefully with bats is possible, but if you must evict them, time it properly so you don’t exclude mothers from their flightless pups or put them out in the cold with no chance to find a new place to hibernate.

Bats are more fascinating than frightening, more valuable than we can afford to lose, and the more we learn about them, the better we can help these charming twilight creatures.

What comes to mind when you think of bats now?

This article was sponsored by the Canadian Wildlife Federation

Bats aren’t scary. Their extinction is.
You might not know this, but bats are more closely related to humans than they are to rodents. And like humans, bats like a safe, suitable place in which to roost, especially in the spring when they are getting ready to have pups. As natural habitats disappear, finding adequate space to roost is becoming a challenge for Canada’s endangered bat species.

Discover ways you can help Canada’s bats! Visit HelpTheBats.ca